Horst Kohler, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, recently announced his plan to hold talks with Morocco and the Algerian backed Polisario Front. Appointed August 16, 2017 by Secretary-General António Guterres, Mr. Kohler has invited the two parties to Berlin in the near future, and although this is a first time the talks are to be held there, it remains to be seen whether or not he will be more successful than his predecessors. He is the fourth Personal Envoy since James Baker was appointed in 1997.
Mr. Baker resigned in June of 2004, after he first proposed a framework agreement in 2001 providing for Moroccan sovereignty under an internationally acceptable form of autonomy for the people living in the region, and then significantly changed positions in 2003 by proposing a new, “non-negotiable” formula. The Moroccans accepted the initial framework proposal, but rejected the latter formula as they believed it would have jeopardized the stability of their country. This reversal also undermined a carefully negotiated agreement between the US and Morocco in 1999 which was the predecessor proposal that tracked with Baker’s original framework agreement.
Secretary Baker was succeeded by Peter Van Walsum, appointed in July of 2005, and whose mandate was not renewed in August of 2008 after he told the UN Security Council that an independent Western Sahara was not a realistic proposition, and called for a new round of negotiations based upon a sovereignty-autonomy formula. In his report in April of 2008 he stated:
The main reason why I find the status quo intolerable is that it is too readily accepted, not only by uncommitted onlookers in distant lands, but also by deeply involved supporters of the Frente Polisario [Polisario Front], who do not live in the camps themselves but are convinced that those who do would rather stay there indefinitely than settle for any negotiated solution that falls short of full independence.”
Ambassador Chris Ross took over the job in January of 2009 and resigned in 2017. Although the longest serving personal envoy, he was unable to hold even one set of formal negotiations between the parties, and only exacerbated the issue when he was implicated in efforts to undermine the Moroccan position in concert with the Americans. Today, it is now clear that the US has no interest in risking its status quo position, ensuring that nothing will be changed. Instead, it prefers working with the Moroccans on other matters it considers more important and avoiding the Sahara issue altogether.
Mr. Kohler should quickly understand that the status quo is untenable and any solution must follow the formula of sovereignty with autonomy that has become broadly accepted within the international community. Anything short of this option will doom the UN process. And, Mr. Kohler will not achieve such an outcome without the UN Security Council coming together and offering its clear support for a sovereignty-autonomy formula as the only solution to this long standing problem. It is time that the UN Security Council members quit hiding behind empty statements that perpetuate a losing proposition by kicking the can down the road. Of particular importance is the need for Algeria to be at the table as well to guarantee any viable and realist outcome. Otherwise, this status quo stalemate is simple a waste of Morocco’s time and the millions of dollars that the US has allocated to the UN on this issue.
The only other option has been for Morocco to implement an autonomy initiative under its sovereignty, and ensure that it has wide international acceptance and support. At the same time, the US and other countries should collaborate with Morocco to allocate their foreign assistance in the Sahara in ways that would enhance the quality and impact of governance and economic development of the region.
We can only hope that Mr. Kohler will finally get the UN Security Council to move proactively and support the only serious, credible and realistic formula: autonomy for the citizens of the Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty.
Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)